LAKEVIEW — Alexis Thomas tried everything to keep Taboo Tabou afloat during 18 months of construction at Clark and Belmont.
The shop owner frenetically marketed classes like "bondage for beginners" and refocused her lingerie section to feature high-end French brands. For Valentine's Day, Taboo Tabou gave away handwritten love letters from World War II and tempted shoppers with secret gift boxes.
"It was really freaking hard," Thomas said. "The corner was just empty for so long, and I don't think people knew we were down here."
But with development at 3200 N. Clark St. nearly complete, and Target poised to open in July, business owners in the heart of Lakeview are cautiously optimistic. A new chamber of commerce oversees the commercial district, and with it comes hope from some that this year will mark a new chapter for central Lakeview.
Back in August 2015, 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney pledged that 3200 N. Clark St. would be a boon for business in the neighborhood. When breaking ground on the first major transit-oriented development in Lakeview, Tunney painted a picture of a safer, more compact neighborhood as a result of its construction.
"One of the reasons we did the transit-oriented development with that number of apartments above was to bring a quality retailer to that corner and more eyes on the street at night," Tunney said Thursday.
The corner has gotten a reputation as the epicenter of crime in Lakeview, particularly with the Belmont "L" station nearby. An increase in robberies and a rash of burglaries coupled with a grungy, gum-littered sidewalks thinned out crowds of shoppers, business owners said.
That's been changing, particularly in the two months since the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce got control of the central Lakeview business district. Its team of power washers has extended its reach to Belmont Avenue, and the chamber is planning to install new streetscape elements like trees and new sidewalks.
Owners of small businesses near Clark and Belmont hope a new Target will drive more foot traffic to the area. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Tunney worked with Town Hall District Cmdr. Mark Buslik to secure a patrolling beat officer along the strip and regular K9 units checking on the Belmont "L" station, he said.
"Economic development is one of the key aspects of keeping a neighborhood safe," Tunney said. "When you see vacant storefronts, that's a problem."
It remains to be seen, though, if Target will have the desired impact for mom-and-pop shops.
Edging out locals?
Big-box retailers are considered by some to be a death knell for nearby small businesses.
When a Wal-Mart opened in the Austin neighborhood in 2006, one-quarter of small businesses within a 4-mile radius of the store closed, according to a 2009 study by Loyola University. Researchers found that the small businesses closest to the Wal-Mart at 4650 W. North Ave. were more likely to close, particularly those selling electronics, toys, office supplies, hardware and general merchandise.
The report also suggested that Wal-Mart's arrival resulted in job loss and sales declines in the area.
Despite reports that big-box retailers can kill smaller business, "When you see so many empty stores, any brick-and-mortar is good," said Lee Crost, who manages Life Spring Health Foods at 3178 N. Clark St.
And national chains also can draw more shoppers to the area, making it possible for small businesses to benefit from and eventually outlive them in a city like Chicago, said Maureen Martino, executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce.
Alexis Thomas rearranges masks at Taboo Tabou in late 2015. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
Unabridged Bookstore, for example, has survived 35 years at 3251 N. Broadway, plugging away despite being sandwiched between two Borders Bookstores for a while.
"You go to Unabridged, and the owner knows your name, they know what you're reading," Martino said. "That interaction is part of the whole experience of giving your money locally."
The value of small
It's unclear what merchandise will be offered at the new Target, which will be one of the company's flexible- format stores that are typically smaller in size.
In 2015 — before Target eliminated its Target Express branding — Tunney said the 29,000-square-foot store would feature grocery, health and beauty departments with a focus on "quick-trip shopping."
Other flexible-format Targets, like one that opened in Lincoln Park in July and another set to open in West Lakeview this fall, also carry select clothing, apartment decor, toys, sporting goods and a CVS pharmacy.
But many shops in Lakeview are more focused on what Target doesn't carry — specifically, the specialty products found on shelves at Taboo Tabou, Kriser's Natural Pet and Life Spring health store.
While near a soon-to-open Target, Kriser's Natural Pet carries a very different line of products. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]
"Everything we have is not what's available in other places," said Zach Burns, who manages the Kriser's at 1033 W. Belmont Ave. "Maybe they'll have nominal things like leashes and collars, but that's not our primary focus."
Kriser's carries only natural pet food that don't contain corn, byproducts, fillers or additives — a far cry from the bargain brands on Target's shelves, Burns said.
If anything, Burns said he thinks Target could draw more shoppers to the block, giving Kriser's the potential for more foot traffic from shoppers looking for pet products that Target doesn't carry.
At Taboo Tabou, Thomas said she feels the same.
"Our customer is so different," Thomas said. "Even if Target brings in their lingerie and hosiery, it's such a different style than ours. Whenever somebody is looking for that style, we already send them to Target or Victoria's Secret.
"We're very honest about what you can get there," she said.
The project's 90 luxury apartments will bring more people to the neighborhood, and with little residential parking in the transit-oriented development, residents will be walking by many of the small businesses on Belmont, Martino pointed out.
"There might be some direct competition with Target, but that's for those store owners to go back and see if they need to change their inventory," Martino said. "They have to figure out how they can compete."